Thursday, May 19, 2011

Out of Mao's Shadow



The author thinks China is a corrupt oppressor, or just very good at doing what needs to be done to stay in power. He tells a few fairly unrelated stories that he develops for maximum emotional impact. One describes a documentary filmmaker who made a film about a girl that was killed for her "Anti-communist" beliefs. She had originally been a staunch communist. However, after Mao cracked down on criticism (that he had encouraged in the 100 flowers campaign, she refused to recant her criticisms.) In prison she wrote with her own blood. (Yes this sounds dramatic, yet they later let her recopy using a pen...)

Another story describes labor protesters who uncovered corruption as wealthy party hacks managed to get rich with privatization of state-run enterprises. The party successfully employed divide-and-conquer to give the workers just enough of what they wanted (including some sacrificial lambs) to quell the protests.

There are also stories of the cultural revolution, homeowners that lose their houses due to development (carried out by one of the richest people in China), the great leap forward, press censorship and the one-child policy.

After reading this, you can't help put feel the Chinese people are brutally oppressed, and that the communist party is an expert about doing what needs to be done to stay in power. (The communists co-opted the workers to destroy the landowners, then turned around and took over the land-owner role.)

However, with carefully selected anecdotes, you could probably do the same for any other country.

At the end he provides cases of daring civil-rights lawyers and their attempts to actually use the law to overpower the party bosses. (It is often the shame factor that leads to the desired results rather than the actual lawsuit itself.)

In the end, he presents the communist party as essentially a continuation of the previous dynasties. Rulers pretty much expect to rule by fiat, with the only real checks on power being their superiors. In the scheme of things, the communist party may actually be more of a "democracy" than previous dynasties. However, this "democratic" approach to power may also open it to greater corruption (since their hold on power is more tenuous.)

Since the author is a reporter, the press gets a large amount of coverage, and the rights of a free press are of the highest importance. However, he does note that the most successful independent newspapers also devote a huge amount of space to soccer and celebrities. Hmmm. Party fluff vs. celebrity fluff. Does it even matter?

Monday, May 16, 2011

History of Ancient Sparta

A History of Ancient Sparta: Valor, Virtue, and Devotion in the Greek Golden Age, 7 Cds [Complete & Unabridged Audio Work]
Sparta never seems to get the credit of Athens. Sure, there are plenty of Spartan sports teams, but you don't have colleges in towns called "Sparta". Spartans are more the Republicans of Greek history. They survived for a while, were conservative, and had a great military. However, Athens is what gave us all the intellectual basis for our modern democracy. (Ok, so a lot of the Athenian culture came from Sparta, but, hey, at least Athens made some cool stories.)

These lectures provide some nice background of Sparta. They were truly the "jocks" of the ancient world. They exercised like crazy, and were well-prepared to take on any foe. However, their preferred method of engagement was to intimidate the enemies and let them peacefully leave. (Rather than the then common custom of slaughter.) When were well respected, especially in childbirth. Unfit human "specimens" were discarded so that only the strongest continued to propagate.

For some reason, however, the Spartan's began to die out. And eventually, they fell by the wayside. It makes for an enchanting history, though the records are alas, somewhat lacking, especially compared to their neighbors form Athens.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Myths and Mysteries in Archaeology

Frauds, Myths, & Mysteries Science & Pseudoscience in Archaeology 4th EDITION
These lectures provide a fairly balanced approach to "mysteries" and pseudo-discoveries in archaeology. She does a good job of presenting why science thinks some "stories" are false, yet still admits that there are still plenty of unknowns.

However, she is not afraid to come down hard on people that seem to show intentional ignorance of facts that they know. (Many "popular" writers and alien conspiracy theorists would fall in to this group.)

She spends some time covering Atlantis - which she sees as one of Plato's morality tales that somehow got twisted in its interpretation. Early residents of America were given a balanced treatment. The land bridge hypothesis seems fairly clear, but there are a lot of unknowns regarding various sites. There may have been other people that made it to America before Columbus. However, there is minimal proof for any other than the Vikings. (And for the Vikings there is another mystery of a Minnesota rune-stone.)

Stonehenge and Easter Island provide additional mysteries. Some studies have shown that they are possible. But there are still questions of "why?"

All in all, it is a good look at mysteries and frauds from the past and present, as well as an analysis of how science works and some of the deficiencies of scientific analysis.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Obama vs. Osama

With only one letter different there was bound to be an Osama vs. Obama conflict. It seems almost fitting that the "warmongering" president wasn't able to catch him, but the new conciliatory, Islam-friendly president was.

Now what?

For some radicals out there, bin Laden is now a martyr - all the more reason to fight against the west.

For others, he is not really dead. The US never release photos, so it might not have happened. The real Osama is still alive. They may even claim the US is just using the supposed "raid" as a cover up for the deaths of some innocents. (However, it is difficult to see what tactical advantage the US would have of planting a story like that now - perhaps close to an election you could see it, but now it would be all but forgotten.)

To some, they may hear the story of his "opulent" and decide that he was not the best leader. This may lead some to seek a more conciliatory arrangement with the west, while others may see him as not going far enough in  his extremism, thus begging a more belligerent stance.


And then there is the whole Pakistan thing. These Navy Seals were, after all, conducting a raid on Pakistani soil. They get a black eye from everyone - the west thinks they are slack for letting the terrorist mastermind live there. The "anti-west" are upset that they let the US conduct the operation there.

What will happen?  Who knows. However, with the underlying unrest in the middle east, there is likely to be abundant change. Unfortunately, the change will probably not be what the United States would like to see. Sure, they may see democracies. However, democracies in the middle east tend to not vote for the people that the US likes. (Look at how the west sponsored the overthrow of the Iranian democracy.) 

Popular governments may actually enact policies to utilize the oil riches for long-term benefit, rather than let a few run off with immense wealth.  They could decide that the Arab world will resume the intellectual pedestal that it held a millennium ago, proving a conservative religion can provide a better base for advanced intellectual inquiry. Or they could just let a new despot come in to power.

Perhaps the one thing that the bin Laden action did prove is that the US military is capable of carrying out covert assassination plots. This should give any future terrorist mastermind pause before releasing his face on videos.

Empires of the World: A Language History of the World


The rise and fall of languages is often correlated with the rise and fall of empires; however, there are some interesting empires. Amaric was spoken by a large powerless group, yet it became a lingua-franca in the ancient middle east. On the other hand, the rise of Arabic was closely aligned with the rise of the Muslim empire. (However, it was primarily adopted in regions that already spoke Semitic languages.)

The stories of Chinese and Egyptian both have similar histories. Since they both had "pictographic" script rather than a phonetic alphabet, they were able to endure much longer than other languages. Even as the language was undergoing phonetic shift, the pictures could be the same. (Both sets of images that served as the impetus for neighbors to create their own phonetic alphabets.) They also both had fairly dense populations in a well-defined area.

The case of Sanskrit is much different. It spread throughout northern India, and its influence and Hindu religion were spread throughout south India. (Even though the languages were very different, they had a number of Sanskrit lone words.) The further influence was felt throughout southeast Asia, with strong language influence. (Including adoption of local alphabets based on the Devanagari script.)

Other languages have had varying "imperial" fates. Russia carved out a fast area. However, the Russian army tended to be very Russian, and a degree of autonomy was given to subject states. Many of the states dropped Russian once given independence. (However, in sparsely populated Siberia, Russian has maintained its strength.)

European imperial languages seemed to gain the most strength if they had colonizers attached. The "revolutions" in places such as the Americas were often lead by descendants of the original colonizers, rather than the earlier inhabitants.

There are also cases of people that build "empires" yet end up adopting the language of the people they conquer. (The Francs in Europe are a case in point, even though they sacked the Roman empire, they adopted the Latin language. However, they took this language to England, and eventually succumbed to the native tongue - though a plague may have helped out.)

This book is large and dense with many other details of languages. Some areas are extremely interesting. However, it can take a long time to plow through. There is also significant material overlap between this and the author's much more readable Last Lingua Franca.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Pathfinder


Pathfinder starts with two seemingly unrelated threads that eventually come together in the end. (This seems to be Card's new favorite device.) At first, there are a few subtle clues as to the relationship of the stories, however, it is not until the tail-end of the book that it finally becomes clear what had happened. (I still could see a couple possibilities for the main character's father.)

The main story takes place on a distant world with a calendar that counts backwards for 11 millenia. The people live within a "wall fold", an area surrounded by an impenetrable invisible wall that makes people crazy when they approach it. The world that the main characters inhabit is fairly advanced, but low-tech.

We meet the main character (Rigg) as he is out trapping with his father. He has some special ability to follow "paths" around. One day, he receives a special mission after his father is hit by a tree. (He later discovers this mission is to find his sister.) On his way, he encounters his childhood friend's brother doing a risky river crossing. He attempts to save him, but as he is doing it, time slows down, and an ancient man gets in his way. The kid dies, his friend blames him and he becomes a fugitive. However, people talk the mob down and eventually the friend is blamed for not watching carefully and kicked out of house.

They somehow manage to quickly resolve their differences and set out on the adventure. They happen to meet up with a burly boarding house owner who becomes their companion. They discover that Rig is a potential heir to the thrown (only there is now a 'peoples revolution' that has replaced the monarchy. (And the monarchy, a few generations earlier had been declared a matriarchy)

They run in to numerous people. Nobody comes across clearly as a friend or an enemy. (And some perceived friends turn out to be enemies and vise versa.) Rigg's sister has the ability to "slow time" and appear invisible. His friend has the ability to "quicken time" and allow people to go back in time. Together, they have an ability to trace paths back in time. If other people see them do that, they often become a source of a saint or a legend.

The time travel experience is different than typical time travel views - and quite confusion. Time travelers can go back and change events. But they have already done it. They can also go back and take things from the past into the future (and potentially the other way around.) However, time travel is space-dependent. (They end up in the same space.)

Even more confusing is the way that they suddenly develop their talents. The intermediate steps seem to be sketchy, and despite explanation their "growth" in the talents is still sketchy.

The "other" story deals with a colonization mission sent out from earth. The ship is commanded by a human along with some humanoid "expendables". The earth is in dire straits after being hit by a space object, and the colonizers are seen as the best approach for the maintenance of the human race. This ship was to go through a "time fold" in order to make it quickly to the inhabitable planet. In the process, the ship gets split in to 19 versions of itself, and travels backwards in time 11 millenia. They then cause a mass extinction event and seed the planet with earth life.

These stories come together in the end, with a "satisfying" conclusion that still leads plenty of threads open for future sequels.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Ancient Empires Before Alexander 3


This is the final episode of great empires. These empires are of the "much more well known" variety. This is primarily about the Persia and Carthage and a few of their "pretenders". Carthage is perhaps the most fascinating because so little is known of them. They set up a great empire, and were doing great when they just happened to fall on the bad side of Rome. What would have happened if Hannibal had sacked Rome?

The Persians are more historically known. However some of their compatriots are equally mysterious. And the life of Persia that we know tends to be very Greek-centric (since it is the Greek records that we have today.) Again, it begs the question of what we are missing in the history that we know today.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Vertical Farm


I read a recent article about an "internal" farm over in Europe and was hoping to find out more in this book. Unfortunately, all I got was a bit of Utopian Urban Justice. The author thinks that "vertical farms" will appear in blighted urban areas, providing abundant well-paying jobs, and driving up real estate values. Oh, and by the way, they will also help feed the world.

The vertical farms will also be architectural wonders (like the apple store on 5th avenue) and people will clamor for one in their neighborhood. They would provide high quality, tasty vegetables for the local neighborhood. The government would provide the seed money to get the research off the ground, but then they would magically appear. Since all pests are controlled, there will be no need for pesticides. They will save most of their water, and even be a depository for treated waste-water.

It is all find and dandy, except for a few major gaping holes:
1) Why would they chose to go in the middle of an urban area? These are in essence vegatable factories. The big suburban office parks seem like the logical locations. After all, those areas are cheaper, and provide for easier trucking.
2) Economies of scale. If a small 1-acre "21st-century greenhouse" can provide food for a neighborhood, why not make a huge monstrosity of a building? Then the produce can be trucked all around.
3) If these are all they are cracked up to be, entrepreneurs would be starting them up. Money is money. Oh they wont make money? Well, why bother? Since they are envisioned to be "totally organic" that should make it even easier to turn a profit.
4) Pest control is to be carried out by keeping the environment totally pure. But quality of the produce is to be enhanced by "stressing" them enough to produce enough taste and beneficial compounds. A few problems here. Can we really have a totally sterile environment? And do we want to? The issue of waste processing could also cause public concerns. "Outside" organic farmers could easily mount a smear campaign comparing "wholesome" outside produce to sterile produce grown with sewage.
5) Workers. Why are these expected to be nice jobs? Even if a vertical farm overcomes obstacles to create an urban farm, labor will be an issue. A conventional farm may get migrants working for a small fraction of what the urban workers would demand. The urban workers could more easily unionize and further drive up the labor cost. That's nice for them, but not so nice for the farm trying to compete with others. Could the system change? Sure. However, it will most likely be the established farms that finally decide the smaller transport costs and image can compensate for the extra urban labor costs.

As to the actual biological and chemical processes, this book doesn't have much to say. Waste can be treated. Water can saved. Solar power can be used to provide light to help "power" the plants. (Hmm, reductionism. Weren't we already supposed to have chemical vitamin compounds that eliminated the need for food?) The sterile environment and decontamination room keeps out pests. The devil is in the details. Unfortunately, the details are not this book's forte.

Ancient Empires Before Alexander 1


These lectures cover the early empires - primarily in Mesopotamia. These are the ones that are less well known, yet quite intriguing. Empires such as Ur 3 and early Babylonia had interesting histories. Some tried to create a very centralized economy, with everything planned out from the top. This eventually fell apart when unexpected events occurred. Others tried a confederated approach. This had its problems when the vassals started squabbling. The ancient history of these empires makes them even more fascinating. Bureaucracy and government systems similar to what we have today were developed 3000-4000 years ago. Could there have been things even older that we just don't know about?

This first set of lectures seem to be the most lively of the series. The opening discusses the actual definition of "empire." It comes down to "things that we call empires are empires". I guess we know it when we see it. The question of why is also posed. Often it comes down to a larger-than-life personality.

The lectures do a good job of presenting a narrative, even when one is hard to come by. After all, we are dependent for the most part on clay tablets and building inscriptions. Ancient "CD-Roms" would be totally inaccessible. How many ancient civilizations are we totally missing?

The Rape of Nanking: the Forgotten Holocaust of World War II


This is a confused book. It alternates between semi-objective narrative and propaganda. It argues that Japan should be hung out to dry for very bad behavior during World War II, yet it criticizes the excessive castigation of "good" Nazis after the war. It is also finds a way to interject numerous sordid accounts of Japanese mistreatment of the Chinese.

It really want to make you think that the Japanese behavior in Nanking was bad, bad, bad. In that it succeeds. However, it also left me with the impression that it was just a few bad apples that were responsible for most of the bad things. The role of the "foreign safety zone" members was also somewhat confusing. If the Japanese were so bad, why did they continue to respect the foreigners?

At times the book attempts to provide a narrative of the fall of Nanking. However, this only occupies a brief portion of the book. Most of the "narrative" portion contains simple anecdotes and other accounts that accentuate the "badness", but don't really tell a story. Stories of "human experiments" are told briefly - but lack some of the data from the similar Nazi experiments.

The end of the book seeks vengeance. "Japan must pay!" is the rallying cry. The propensity of some Japanese to deny that the atrocities ever occurred is seen as a big problem. However, it is acknowledged that a lot of this is due to the political situation - Chinese leadership "absolved" the Japanese of responsibility. (Perhaps they have learned the benefits of forgiving and "moving on".) Perhaps the Japanese feel that, after being nuked, they had suffered a significant "retribution" for their activities. (After all, it was the respect for "Japan" over self that could be traced as the root of all these issues.)

The author sought to create awareness of the Nanking massacre. This she managed to do. The Germans did a great job of recording their exploits and later flogging themselves for their bad behavior. The Japanese managed to do neither. Thus, their misbehaviors are less well known. Their victims seem to accept this. C'est la vie.